More travels in the French southwest

The autumn has threatened, at times, to take over recently. The Mistral blew quite cold for a while but then retreated. After a bout of drizzly rain, calm weather and the sun has returned. It is glorious now – sunny and a perfect temperature. I still swim every morning but it is a stretch. The pool temperature had fallen to sixteen degrees at one point but is hovering close to eighteen at the moment. A few laps every morning is refreshing and certainly gets the day moving.


We took a week recently to do a road trip. This took in Arles, Perpignan, Port de la Selva, Andorra, Carcassonne, Montpellier, Nimes, Avignon and Toulon. No disappointments there. We did a bit of a motorway dash to Perpignan but stopped off in Arles on the way there. That was a lovely place, one time home of Vincent van Gogh, it has a wonderful old town and impressive remains of a Roman amphitheatre. What we missed here was an opportunity to have a visit to the Camargue. A bit of a wilderness area with wild horse and flocks of flamingos. Another time, I hope.


While we stayed in Perpignan we took the opportunity to drive to Spain for lunch. The coast road was lovely all the way to Port de la Selva. Jackie had holidayed there as a kid when it was quite a different place. It was Puerto de la Selva too back then. That was still in the Franco era in Spain when the Catalan language was effectively banned. Hence the difference between the port and puerto. It’s often surprising to see the area of Catalan that extends from France to Spain but also encompasses Andorra as well. The capital there was previously Andorra la Vieja. There was a time in France when there was less of a tolerance to regional languages but the street signs in many towns in this area are also in Provençal these days.

Coast drive to Spain

From Perpignan we drove to Carcassonne via Andorra. The capital of Andorra, Andorra la Vella, was not particularly characterful but the drive west from Perpignan through the Pyrenees was lovely and fortunately we were blessed with lovely weather. Perpignan did have an old town but overall, the city was not quite as nice as some of the other old towns in the other cities we have visited in France. The visit to Andorra was the chance for me to visit the only European microstate I hadn’t seen before. Previous travels had taken in Lichtenstein, Monaco, Vatican City and San Marino. Andorra is basically an oversized ski resort but it was wonderfully scenic in the absence of snow.


Carcassonne has a lovely old fort but it has a bit of a Disneyland feel to it as it has no real function except to cater to tourists. The town of Carcassonne itself was very nice despite bits of it having seen better days. With enormous amounts of time you can take a trip down the canals that traverse it. That again might be something for another time.


We took a long drive to Montpellier. We followed back roads through some lovely wooded country with breaks to have brie and bread snacks from the back of the car. There were some lovely old villages on the way too. But this then gave way to flatter farmland and more practical looking towns. We had a pokey little flat in Montpellier but it was close to the city centre. This allowed a few strolls through the old city. I liked it as I am a city person by nature. One of the bigger cities in the south of France, it was really lively with some wonderful architecture. It had the same trams as Sydney’s east which are very large for a light rail. Montpellier’s were individually decorated and probably worked a bit better given the city’s more transport friendly topography.


The drive then took us through Nîmes, with an even more impressive Roman amphitheatre and a pleasant, largely modern, town. From there it was through the countryside again to Avignon. It was here you definitely find there are times where travelling by car is not always the most practical way of getting around in Europe. After much squeezing through very narrow streets in a very confusing old system we had to park well outside the town and trudge to our accommodation. Again, a lovely old town. It is beside the Rhône River and was once the seat of the popes before they moved to the Vatican. It had a massive old papal palace which was very impressive from the outside. Given time constraints and the rather poor reviews of the interior, we skipped that and headed for Toulon. I had wanted to see a rugby match there and managed to make it there. The south of France is rugby country. The crowd seemed to be a fair cross section of the population, not like in Sydney where there is always the whiff of North Shore toff at any rugby game. Toulon itself was pleasant. A working port but a beachfront area that looks slightly faded. The grey skies didn’t help much there. We were due to stay that night but for a range of reasons ended up doing the one and a bit hour drive back to Claviers. That was the end of a week touring another part of the southwest of this great country.

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